Age of Limits II: Jimmy Carter Get His Revenge

There was a very interesting article by Bruce Shulman in WaPo recently about the “new” Age of Limits. Maybe we are on the cusp of something as big as the 1980 election (which in my book is still the most significant election of the last four decades).

Of course much has changed since the late 1970s (even if Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are-thankfully-still with us). Carter’s energy plan’s consisted of strong environmental protection programs: Superfund to clean up toxic waste, ANWR, a ban on offshore drilling, enactment of surface mining control legislation, etc. Fat chance you’ll get that out of BushCo.

Decontrol of oil prices not withstanding, most of the Carter energy program consisted of new federal involvement in energy issues to an unprecendented level. These measures included items that Bush has refused to put on the table like “sterner measures like those implemented in the Carter years, such as a “gas guzzler tax” on low mileage cars or new fuel efficiency standards for buildings, cars and refrigerators.” And that’s just a partial list of new efficency standards of the late 1970s.

Don’t forget the windfall profits tax on oil companies that Carter persuaded Congress to enact and that a certain Democrat recently proposed to reinstate. And who could forget what former GOP strategist Kevin Phillips wrote about Carter in his 1990 Book The Politics of Rich and Poor: “While Carter promoted new competition in financial services and transportation, he alsop intensified regulation of the environment, product and occupational safety, energy, equal employment and ‘foreign corrupt practices.'” Don’t hold your breath waiting for Dubya to go cracking down on the evil policies of “Bandar Bush” and the Saudi Royal family.

A minimum wage increase along the lines of what Carter did? Nope. Federal aid to help the poor pay energy bills? Ha, ha, real funny. Like playoff tickets at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. As Carter said in his much-maligned-“malaise” speech of July 15, 1979: “Our nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to the needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices.” How about having a Congressional Democrat propose this? It would be a good contrast to Bush’s coddling of Halliburton in a way many Americans can understand.

But I’m not just hear to just highlight the differences between Carter and Bush. Perhaps the energy crises of the 2000s will help to reinvigorate the spirit of national community that died sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century? Democrats showed in the 2004 campaign, from Kerry down to the bottom of the ticket that they are the communityresponsibility party, and could speak the language of responsibility to others, and not just ourselves. A marked contrast to the 1990s where Democrats all but competed with the GOP to see who could be the bigger “screw you I’m out for me” party a.k.a. “the Culture of Greed.”

Whether Americans can accept short term pain for long term gain is anyone’s guess. As Shulman notes, “Calls for discipline and sacrifice filled the airwaves.

But Americans still did not want to accept Carter’s vision of limits. Amid the mayhem and malaise of the ’70s Americans looked elsewhere to solve their problems and define their communities.

“That led to a fundamental political and cultural shift that fueled Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Insisting on abundance, the nation and its leaders rejected calls for conservation or regulation. Instead of accepting limits, Americans blamed government for failing to remove limits. The nation and its leaders, even later within the Democratic Clinton administration, looked more to Wall Street than to Pennsylvania Avenue. The Texas oilmen who now occupy the nation’s two highest offices embodied that anti-government, entrepreneurial ethos.” Still, no one got elected saying that the American people in the aggregate are a bunch of selfish jerks, if only because it isn’t true (somerihgt-wingers notwithstanding).

Furthermore, just as many liberal Dems of the 1970s refused to fully tackle the issue of inflation (although a Democratic Congress did confirm Paul Volcker as Fed Chariman), today’s conservatives are refusing to acknowledge the problems of rising income inequality, stagnant wages, corrupt oil companies, and the need for government involvement and federal aid (e.g. Hurricane Katrina).

In 1976 Reagan ran for the GOP nomination for president as a right-wing conservative in an attempt to dethrone the moderate Gerald Ford. At the time it was an election too early, as Reagan narrowly lost to Ford.

As Shulman notes, “Bush faces potential mutiny from his own base in Congress and the electorate.” Was Kerry’s pro-community 2004 campaign a campaign too early? We report you decide.

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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5 Responses to Age of Limits II: Jimmy Carter Get His Revenge

  1. mitch says:

    I remember the line Reagan used about how high the stack of dollar bills would be that would represent the national debt at that time and also the reference to the welfare queen.Neo-cons back then wanted us to be greedy,as P.J.ORouke called it, a parliment of whores. Those were the same neo-cons we have today and look what they have done to our country.The biggest transfer of wealth in our history, from the bottom up.Poor people are even more poor today because there are not the jobs out there today there was then.How do you kill social programs, take away the jobs that provide funding for these programs.President Carter was a great president because he didn’t want use to be greedy and didn’t use our national pride to get us into wars we did not need to be in.Again I say, Republicans are better at getting us to wallow in the sins of our heart and not thinking honestly about how to solve the problems that we all face.

  2. Ginny in CO says:


    Maybe the whole problem with American voters is they use 20/20 hindsight? Especially when the hindsight is clouded by a lot of media rhetoric. The ’80 vote did signal a distinct turn away from the more disciplined Democratic ideas to putting all the eggs on a wishful economic scheme to get everyone who held a good job wealthy.

    The malaise speech was too close to home. No one wanted to look in the mirror and admit they could be part of the problem or part of the solution, Being part of the solution was So BORING. No fun, no new gadgets, fast cars with lousy mileage, etc.

    Well now that the economics have flowed up much faster than they trickled down,
    John Q and Jane Public may finally be accepting that they were tricked into gambling on an idea that was as VooDoo as GHWB had called it.

    Now they have to get smart to the election process before we have more irrational results that no amount of campaigning, GOTV or qualified candidates can beat.

    Has anyone calculated the tax “relief” we have gotten versus the income stagnation of the last 20+ years? Funny how the right wants word concepts in Black and White. The numbers are ok in red.

  3. Nick says:


    Right on man.


    If memory serves me correct, the Economic Policy Institute calculated that given the fact that many states had to raise thier (often regressive) taxes in the 1980s because of reagan’s cuts to aid to states, the total tax bite of median households was LARGER at the end of the 1980s than at the start of the 1980s. A similar event has happened in the 2000s.
    As for income (or more precisely median household income): Median household income initially peaked in 1973, fell in 1974-75, rose from 1976 through 1979. It then declined from 1980-82, rose from 1983 to 1989 (though adjusted for inflation it was barely over its 1979 level).
    From 1990-1995 median household income fell for 6 years!!! It rose from 1996-1999 (though it was only 2% over its previous peak in 1989-adjusted for inflation).
    In 2000 median household income failed to keep pace w/ inflation for the first time since 1995. Since 2000 median household income has declined or been stagnant (including 2004). See or read any edition of the State of Working America for more info.

    Almost forgot about work hours: According to CBS news, in 1973 Americans worked on average 40 hrs per week. By 2000 that number had risen to 49!! hours a week.

  4. Ginny in CO says:

    Thanks Nick,

    I remembered the generalizations but couldn’t recall any statistics or where i had seen it.
    Definitely remember the issue of state taxes going up. Colorado and California are suffering from hamstrung legislatures that are trying to operate under amendments passed to limit state spending before the feds started cutting aid – except to the Red states.

    And thinking of the # of hours worked, I believe there has also been a decrease in vacation time. Of course, there is the rise in the number of people who go on vacation and check in with their office every day!!! They must LOVE their jobs 🙂

  5. mitch says:

    nick I have thought for quit some time that supply side economics is a neo-con plan to put this country so far into debt that we have to give up our social programs . Money we borrow from foreign countries we will have to pay back but money they steal from S.S., when our debt reaches 10 or 12 trillion,will not be paid back. Neo-cons do not believe in Robin Hood, but they do believe in robbing the hood.